"Right now it is a thing of blood and theft and dark deeds in the Lower City." – Tunstall, From The Legend of Beka Cooper Book 1 Terrier by Tamora Pierce
What can I say I love a good story, and although every last one of my friends who I have shared it with seem to disagree concerning its status as a good story, I love this book. I love the characters, the setting and the talking cat. (Yes, I read fantasy and have a thing for talking cats, is anyone really surprised?)
So here's the setup: In a country that is very similar to medieval England and in many ways could be a parallel universe's interpretation of that time and place, a girl begins her quest to become a city guard, known affectionately in this world as a Provost's Dog. Before we continue I had better explain how this world is not like England of yore, or there is likely to be confusion later. First, Tortall is a land watched over by a pantheon of Gods, who can, at their discretion involve themselves in human affairs. Second, it is a land that contains and allows for the existence and use of magic.
Beka is proud of her involvement with the Dogs, and for this reason begins to keep a journal of all her experiences during training. She is eager, bright, and exactable, bat there is more to her than initially meets the eye. Beka has a magical gift of her own. She can hear the spirits of the dead that ride on the backs of pigeons. This gives her a unique view of what happens in her part of town, The Lower City. When strange and valuable gemstones begin to turn up, and Beka hears the voices of eight dead on the backs of the birds, she and her training partners know they have to investigate. These stones bring a second set of villainous crimes to light and make for a thrilling if unconventional mystery.
It's not just the story though. In fact, if you know me well at all, you know that generally, I don't really care for mystery. What draws me to this book, and really keeps me hooked are the characters: For instance, Beka is paired with senior Dogs Clara Goodwin, and Matthias Tunstall. Goodwin is a hard, stern woman, who is both willing and able to dispense justice with an iron will. She is skeptical of having a trainee, and is more than happy to make sure that Beka knows it and tows the line. Tunstall on the other hand is as easy-going and fun loving as a good guard could hope to be, and he looks forward to teaching Beka about guards work. They are both funny and intelligent characters who play well off of one another as real partners and friends do. They are utterly believable and enjoyable, and the book would have been lacking without them.
The next set of characters that make the book what it is are the criminal, but ultimately good hearted, Rosto, Kora and Aniki. They are a fascinating study because they manage to very effectively be friends with, and even help the Dogs, and yet still be truly and unashamedly on the other side of the law. This rich contradiction added to deeply interesting personalities makes then extremely compelling characters.
My favorite character though, is Pounce. He is described as the "God-Cat" at a few points in this story, and it's as good a description as any. His status as more than an ordinary animal is signified by his unusual purple eyes. Although the others do not seem to hear him, he has regular conversations with Beka, and infuses the book with quite a lot of sarcastic humor, and general feline antics. He is also the reason for two of my favorite quotes in the story:
"Who needs handsome idiots when we can have kitties!" Aniki
"Cats must always be cats, even when they are gods, or constellations." Beka
Finally, of course there is Beka, herself. She is as I mentioned before, bright, persistent, and hungry for justice. She's a tad idealistic, but she's sixteen. Which of us wasn't at least a tad idealistic at that age? Anyhow, Beka's main flaw is an awful and at times, crippling shyness. Although it does improve throughout the story, there are a few points where you either want to join the other characters in helping her along, or knocking her upside the head over this particular weakness. All in all, she is a fun character to follow, because she is believable.
If you have read Tamora Pierce before, this book is different from all of her other work because it is the only story, (though the rest of the series will follow in this vein), that is written from the perspective of diary entries. Some people loved this style, some hate it. Personally until she throws in a short entry, I tend to forget it's supposed to be a journal. The entries are long enough that it's easy enough to do. I doubt some of her "journal entries" would be written the way they are in the story, if they were real, but the author is going to have to make a few concessions to ensure that the story comes through clearly.
All in all, I love the book and have read it at least half a dozen times since its release. It's not for everyone, and I seem to guess wrong when I try to recommend it, but give it a try, and if you do, let me know what you think.
(One final exciting note: The sequel, Bloodhound, comes out in two weeks.)